By NATHAN KELLY
—Autograph May 2010
On August 14, 1945, President Truman announced America’s victory over Japan. An estimated two million people flooded Times Square in New York City and watched as the ticker declared an end to World War II. Amidst the cacophony of cheers and celebration, Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped one of the most famous photographs in history—a sailor clutching a nurse and planting one of time’s most memorable kisses. After 65 years, the identity of the sailor in the photo remains a mystery. While more than two dozen men claim to be the man in the photo, four names remain viable candidates.
“The one thing I did have in my life, ever since I was a little boy, I always had an imagination,” Ken McNeel said in an interview last year.
In addition to being a model, a lifeguard in Santa Monica and a stuntman in the TV series The Wild, Wild West, McNeel claimed to have had a relationship with Marilyn Monroe. “I went and worked at Lockheed a little before the war. I did the rivet gun and the girl on the other side who flattened the rivets on the bombers was Norma Jean [Baker]. She didn’t have blonde hair then, it was an amber color.
“We worked the swing shift and I drove her home to North Hollywood, then had to drive all the way to Pasadena, which was about 20 miles. One night before I drove home, Norma asked, ‘Why don’t you just move into one of these cottages here?’ I moved in and we became friends. We tended to have sex together. She used to call me Kenny Penny. I didn’t like that.”
Of the famous photo, McNeel explained, “I was in the Coast Guard on a troop ship. I was on the boat and they said there was going to be a big celebration down in Times Square. I saw everybody was kissing everybody and celebrating. There was a photographer there and he said, ‘I’ve got this girl.’ He dragged her in front of me and said, ‘You’re going to kiss her. I’ll make you famous.’ She didn’t know me and I didn’t know her. Oh, the grip I had on her so she couldn’t get away.”
In a final salute to his story, Ken McNeel passed away on the 64th anniversary of the famous photograph—August 14, 2009.
Carl Muscarello was on his way with a buddy to visit his mother in Brooklyn on August 14, 1945. After numerous stops to drink the free beer being handed out, Muscarello found himself kissing every woman he could in Times Square. “I walked by the subway, saw a nurse who looked attractive, and planted a kiss. That’s when I saw the photographer.”
A retired New York City Police Officer, Muscarello toured with Edith Shain making public appearances for a few years before their relationship soured. “We did an appearance in New York City to dedicate the statue in Times Square. We were both offered $1,000 for our time. I refused the check but Edith kept it. I guess she felt like I made her look bad.”
George Mendonsa was watching a movie at Radio City Music Hall when loud banging on the doors stopped the film. A voice shouted that the War was over and everyone poured into Times Square. Mendonsa had been drinking since the morning which may have emboldened him to grab a nurse and kiss her. “I grabbed her and kissed her out of instinct,” Mendonsa said. “If she wasn’t a nurse, I probably wouldn’t have kissed her.”
A study at Yale University by professor of photography, Richard Benson found a resemblance between the sailor and Mendonsa due to a
benign cyst on the sailor’s arm that matched Mendonsa’s.
In 2005, Mendonsa tried, unsuccessfully, to sue Time/Life for using his image without consent.
Glenn McDuffie was a gunner in the United States Navy and had just started his leave on August 14th. “I was at the top of the stairs by the subway when the lady said, ‘Sailor, I’m so happy for you.’ I asked her ‘Why?’ and she said ‘Because the War is over.’ I ran out into the street, jumpin’ and hollerin’ thinking that my brother, who was on the Rattan Death March, might come home.”
That’s when he saw the nurse with her arms out and kissed her. “I heard these footsteps running up and I didn’t know if it was a jealous husband or boyfriend. I saw it was a man taking our picture so I kissed her for awhile. I moved my hand back so he could see her face. It was a good kiss. It was a wet kiss.”
McDuffie said he wasn’t much of a drinker and it wasn’t the booze that
caused him to kiss. “I was on my way to visit a girl in Brooklyn. I didn’t drinkbecause I was going to see her.”
“I passed ten lie detector tests and I’ll pass ten more!” McDuffie said when asked why he was sure he was the sailor in the photograph.
“The radio said the war was over so we ran down to 42nd street. We walked out of the subway and didn’t get too far before a sailor grabbed me and held me quite a long time. Of course I close my eyes when I get kissed, so I didn’t look at him. And then it was over. I turned and walked away and that was it.
“I didn’t know a photograph was getting taken. It was a nice, long kiss and the sailor was quite strong.” I asked Shain if she thought the alcohol on the sailor’s breath from celebrating was the cause of his boldness and she said, “I would think if the man was drinking all day I would remember. I don’t remember any.”
Though two other women, Greta Friedman and Barbara Sokol, say they were the ones being kissed, Edith Shain has been widely accepted as the nurse in the photograph. “Eisenstaedt brought me on stage at one of his [photography] shows and introduced me as the nurse in the photo,” Shain says.
“About 20 years later, I wrote a letter to LIFE and asked them to send me a copy of that photograph. That’s all I wanted. They responded with a great deal of excitement. When I first got to the Time/Life Building, he [Eisenstaedt] introduced me as ‘This is the nurse!’ They were all very excited.”
When asked about why she and Muscarello’s relationship soured, Shain said, “Carl Muscarello is definitely not the man who kissed me. He is a self-promoter and that’s it.”
“He said you took $1,000 for your appearance in New York, an amount he refused,” I mentioned. “What check?” she asked. “I was never offered any money. Maybe the check is still in the mail.”
What the Experts Say
Lois Gibson, forensic artist for the Houston Police Department and dubbed “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist” by Guinness World Records, has studied the photograph and compared each of the men claiming to be the famous sailor. “Ken McNeel, the strongest look-alike, has slight rounded bulges at the top of his forehead. The sailor kissing the nurse…has no such frontal bone imminences.” Gibson also discounts Muscarello due to discrepancies in his brow ridge and shape of his nose.
When asked if it was possible that George Mendonsa could be the Kissing Sailor, Gibson responded, “It is impossible for George Mendonsa to be the sailor in the 1945 Times Square photo. Mendonsa’s hairline is drastically different. There are other obvious differences in Mendonsa’s eyebrows, nasal bone, frontal bone, supercilliary arch, and ear structure, but this obvious divergence in the pattern of hair growth at the side of his forehead eliminates him as the subject.”
Then I asked Gibson about Glenn McDuffie.
“Glenn has a very rare skull abnormality which is also seen in the sailor from the photo in question,” Gibson said. “The sailor in the photo shows a groove in his skull on his left side, but there is no corresponding groove on his right side. I have done facial reconstructions from skulls for 27 years…I have never seen any individual with one of these grooves on only one side of their skull. Even at age 80, Glenn McDuffie’s head and face shape both line up exactly with the sailor from 1945.”
LIFE has made its position regarding the sailor clear. “LIFE has never known the identity of the sailor, and that continues to be the case. We know that a good number of men truly believe they are the sailor in the photograph, because in Times Square on V-J Day many sailors kissed nurses, and at least three photographers were on hand to capture the images.”
Alfred Eisenstaedt never took notes that day. While it’s impossible to identify the subjects in the photograph with complete certainty, Glenn McDuffie stands out as the veteran who matches the closest. Lois Gibson is confident: “We’ve put people on Death Row with less evidence than this.”